Out in the Cold: How We Can Help the Homeless

Offering warmth to those who need it the most during the winter months

Image of a homeless girl in London that was part of an exhibition by Lee Jeffries at the Museum of Rome. (CNS photo/courtesy of Lee Jeffries)
Image of a homeless girl in London that was part of an exhibition by Lee Jeffries at the Museum of Rome. (CNS photo/courtesy of Lee Jeffries)
Last winter was one of the coldest on record. Phrases like “Arctic blast” and “polar vortex” were common in everyday conversation, and it seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere to escape the frigid temperatures. The cold became so much a part of daily life, I don’t think it was a coincidence that Frozen mania took hold; and we still haven’t let it go. With the way things are going, this winter will continue the bitter cold.

While for many the cold is merely an inconvenience, for the homeless it is something worse. I’m such a wimp when it comes to cold; I can’t imagine what it must be like to brave subzero temperatures at night. Physically, the bitter cold can cause hypothermia and necrotic limbs, possibly leading to infection, paralysis and, in some cases, death. But beyond the physical consequences, I can’t think of anything more lonely or hopeless than being lost in the cold and dark; I can’t imagine the abandonment that people must feel as they are left to brave the elements on their own.

Christ calls us to welcome those who are homeless and to accept and love everyone, whether or not they fit the standards of acceptability set by society. That means reaching out to people in concrete ways, even with actions as simple as welcoming them in from the cold.

But how do we do this? Here are some ways that you can help the homeless in your community.

  1. Organize a winter clothing drive.

    This is a relatively easy one to implement. You can reach out to your friends, family, co-workers, fellow church members and others to get involved. Announce that you are collecting warm items like coats, gloves, hats, socks and blankets for the homeless. Something as simple as a warm coat can make a huge difference to someone without a home. Find a local organization that accepts clothing donations and arrange a time to drop them off. A good place to start is the outreach office at your church, but you can also check other churches, as well as homeless shelters and other nonprofit organizations that work with the homeless. If you’d like help in starting a drive and distributing your donations, organizations like One Warm Coat have resources.

  2. Volunteer at a homeless or hypothermia shelter.

    Many cities have a homeless shelter system, run in partnership with churches or secular organizations. A simple Google search will bring up opportunities in your community. Additionally, the National Coalition for the Homeless directory is a great place to start. Such organizations are usually very open to volunteers and will be happy to help you get involved. Likewise, cities have hypothermia shelters that open during cold weather and need all of the help they can get when subzero temperatures arrive.

  3. Give when asked.

    This is a simple one. If you see someone who is homeless and asking for help, give in whatever way you can — while using your best judgment and always making sure that you feel safe in the actions you take. Giving might mean sharing money, a restaurant gift card, a hot meal or drink, or just your company. Some creative people I know prepare before going through areas with homeless people, to give hats and gloves, granola bars and fruit, or information about local shelters.

  4. Advocate for dignity.

    People don’t always understand the complexity of the issues that can lead to homelessness. Look for ways to educate yourself and others in your community, such as talking with friends, contacting your legislators, and holding community events. Organizations like the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Alliance to End Homelessness have resources to guide your advocacy efforts.

  5. Start a shelter.

    In my community, on alternate weeks during winter months local churches invite individuals who are homeless to spend the night, enjoy good food and stay warm. There are also efforts like The Gubbio Project, where homeless people are invited to stay in church pews and receive needed services and supplies, such as showers and clothing. Reach out to possible partners, like churches and other community groups, to get things rolling. Ask for help from the people working at local soup kitchens or free clinics. Seek out the advice of shelters in surrounding communities. People already working with the homeless and the homeless themselves can provide guidance and strategies for your efforts. Whatever idea might fit well in your community, I encourage you to share it with others and watch it grow. Starting a shelter may seem daunting, but you may be surprised at what you can do. Remember what Margaret Mead said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

This past fall, I was volunteering at the rotating homeless shelter in my community when the weather had already started to turn cold. One of the guests told me about another homeless man who was staying in an abandoned house and froze to death. His dog’s loud barking led people to the body. No human being deserves to die in the elements. I hope this article gives you ideas to start helping the homeless in your community, because God doesn’t want anyone to be left out in the cold.

Laura Stephens is a graduate of the College of William and Mary and is studying to become a physician assistant at DeSales University. She thinks God, her family, her friends, Catholic Social Teaching, writing, movies, cooking, and doing yoga are pretty awesome.